Campaign Week in Review - 3/1/19: Understanding Zoning Reform

by Irina Costache, Campaign Organizer

On Saturday, Bill knocked on doors in Newton Highlands south of Route 9 and heard from voters about city services and street repair conditions and traffic in Newton! On Thursday, he was also able to sit down with a Ward 5 business owner in Waban Square to learn about the challenges faced by local businesses – including the damaging effects of low pedestrian traffic and housing unaffordability for potential employees.

Other updates/events from this week:

  • A constituent recently emailed Bill about whether Newton is considering implementing gender neutral/ all gender/ non binary restrooms in public facilities in Newton, like nearby towns. The Mayor's LGBTQ+ Community Liaison, Holly Ryan, confirmed that this is in the works!

  • On Sunday, Stop & Shop workers voted through their union, the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1445 union, to authorize a strike if negotiations for fair pay and benefits fail. If a strike happens, it will affect the new Stop & Shop on Needham Street in Ward 5. Please do not cross any picket lines.

  • Bill attended Rev. Howard Haywood’s funeral at Myrtle Baptist Church on Sunday. A well known community activist, one of the Reverend’s final messages was that there is still work to be done in Newton. He hoped that it will become a model of true racial integration.

Zoning and Planning Committee

Bill has been attending community meetings and discussions on Newton’s zoning reform since last fall. It would be the biggest redesign in more than half a century. But for many of the sitting city councilors, their first deep dive into proposed zoning redesign came this past Monday. Bill attended that City Council Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, which was about the Planning Department’s newly released “Buildout” model. This model shows how every lot in Newton would be zoned – and more importantly how much could be built on each residential lot under that new zoning – under the February 2019 draft of the proposed reform. Comments, especially objections, from the public during this phase will shape changes the next draft. (They have already adopted changes to a preliminary draft based on public feedback since October.)

Monday night featured a great presentation by the Planning Department on a very complicated topic, and we have undertaken to try to write out some key points, highlights, and figures from that presentation in a way everyone can hopefully understand. You can check out the PowerPoint from the City as well.

The top goals for the zoning reform (set back in 2011) consist of increasing lot conformity, reducing speculative teardowns, and promoting broader community objectives such as climate change response and demographic diversity. One overall concern with the zoning redesign came from Councilor Crossley (Ward 5-at-Large), who argued that the proposed rezoning actually hews too much toward conforming toward already existing realities on the ground (i.e. preserving single-family zoning, as opposed to re-zoning for more multi unit new construction, since that affects other city goals on affordable housing, the environment, etc.). On the other hand, some councilors feel the proposed reform is too great a change already.

Understanding the buildout model:

  • The Planning Department emphasized that the buildout does not calculate what is likely to be built (that is shaped by market forces, individual preferences, and design trends), but rather it calculates the maximum possible construction citywide “by right” (i.e. without special permits or re-zoning) under the proposed new zoning.

  • For all residential lots, the buildout model shows: the maximum possible massing of buildings on a lot, the maximum possible lot splits (only viable new lots), the maximum possible residential units (with no commercial blend), and speculative teardown vulnerability.

  • Speculative teardown vulnerability is calculated to find a tipping point of whether the rezoned lot would allow re-developers to sell the new home for at least 2.4x what it was bought for (assessed value is used as a baseline), if the new unit can be at least 3,800 sf above ground, AND if it can be sold for $600/sf or more.

  • To further underscore the difference between maximum buildout vs likely construction, the Planning Department also noted that under current zoning, owners could already build by-right 2,000 more housing units in Newton because only half of the buildable square footage in residential zones have been built. Around 47% more capacity could be added without any reform. Simply changing what is allowed in some zones won’t necessarily change what is built because everyone is already not maxing out.

  • There are a few zoning code changes for lots which affect the allowed buildable area, and modifying each of them in one direction or another when drafting the proposed reforms can greatly change the maximum buildable construction. The Planning Department said they act like “levers” on what is allowed. These levers are: minimum lot frontage (the narrowest side to side width a lot can be along a street), minimum setback (shortest distance from the lot line to the building), maximum lot coverage (the most square footage that the structures like a house, deck, pool, etc. can cover of the total lot), and minimum lot size (area) & depth (length from street to the back line). Note here that “lot coverage” replaces a less comprehensive “Floor Area Ratio” (FAR) in the existing code.

  • One tradeoff in the draft is making it a bit more viable to subdivide a lot and build two smaller units as a way of compensating people who were expecting to be able to sell a big lot to a teardown developer. Another tradeoff would require new buildings to be built with deeper setbacks from lot line, but it is expected that this could push more people to add additions onto existing buildings getting closer to the lot lines, since additions are not governed the same way as new construction.

  • How tightly rules should be written for expanding non-conforming buildings compared to how strict the lot coverage requirements would be on new building construction was a matter of debate during the meeting.

  • The Buildout model of the February 2019 zoning reform draft finds that up to 2% more residential lots could emerge in Newton, given proposed changes to lot size requirements.

New zoning districts:

The new zoning code would create all new district categories, replacing any current ones. There are four that are primarily residential:

  • R3, the densest, would be designated onto 5,728 existing lots.

  • R2 is the most expansive, designated onto 11,964 existing lots.

  • R1, the least dense, would be designated onto 3,541 existing lots

  • NG, the least common and also partially commercial, would be designated onto 207 existing lots, all on the outskirts of village centers.

You can check a map and see your home’s proposed zoning designation here. Broadly speaking, Upper Falls will be mostly R3, Newton Highlands (within Ward 5) will be mostly R2, and Waban would be split between R2 and R1 with most of the R2 being east of Chestnut St and most of the R1 being west of Chestnut St. Again, these largely reflect current densities (or at least densities as of the year 2000, to set a benchmark regarding future teardowns.)

Key numbers from the maximum buildout scenarios (i.e. if every possible lot split allowed in the February draft reform happened and all possible lot areas are built on to the fullest extent permissible by right):

  • R3 – Here, the teardown risk falls from 44% to 11%, with the at-risk units dropping from 2,691 to just 681. The max allowable housing units (compared to maximum possible on those same specific lots but under current code) slightly increase from 12,065 to 12,557. The Planning Department noted the difficulty in incentivizing small 2 units in new construction instead of 1 unit to 1 unit teardowns in the market area being proposed for R3.

  • R2 districts would grow total allowable units by 4% (12,784 allowed now to 13,478) and teardown vulnerability would decline from 4,161 units at risk to just 476 units at risk (from 33% down to 4 or 5%).

  • R1 generally has very large single family homes with very large yards. The maximum possible building scenario rises to 4,088 units, and the teardown risk grows to 64% (up from 42%) under maximized lot splits, but in another scenario grows only to 44%. Council President Laredo (Ward 7-at-Large) asked if teardown concerns are the same for R1 as other residential zones, adding that deciding on a policy for lot subdivision and the city’s objectives on that point is a place for legitimate debate within the Council.

  • The Neighborhood General residential-commercial district (if built as 100% residential with no commercial) would increase from 1,150 current max units to 5,691 under the draft. The Planning Department also advised that NG district includes a few big properties that they believe should be zoned to another category, greatly cutting the aforementioned figures. They also emphasized that a 100% residential build would never happen, since it’s a semi-commercial district as well. For NG zones, under the current proposal, the teardown risk rises from 25% to 81% in that unlikely max build scenario. But Council President Laredo cautioned that the intention of creating NG transitional districts approaching village centers is actually for re-development specifically so “teardown vulnerability” as a concept is not as applicable in the way it is for R2.

This meeting focused entirely on the buildout model. At an upcoming ZAP committee meeting, changes being proposed for process – how projects are reviewed, special permits, variances, etc – will be addressed.

We hope that helps everyone understand the proposed zoning reforms a bit better, but please feel free to email back with followup questions.